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7 Best West Coast Road Trips in the U.S.

Travel + Leisure logo Travel + Leisure 7/11/2020 Patricia Doherty
a car parked on the side of a mountain: Lively cities, charming coastal towns, beautiful beaches, rugged national parks, and more await. © Adam C Bartlett/Getty Images/Image Source Lively cities, charming coastal towns, beautiful beaches, rugged national parks, and more await.

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

Stretching from San Diego, California, to Blaine, Washington, the West Coast of the United States encompasses over 1,370 miles from top to bottom. With so much beauty lying in between, including striking mountains, stunning national parks, and of course, the sparkling Pacific Ocean, this region is best experienced on the road, with a good number of detours to explore what lies inland, too.

But planning a West Coast road trip can be intimidating, with a variety of options, from a coastal California drive with plenty of stops at beaches along the way to a scenic journey from Seattle, Washington, to historic Astoria in Oregon.

a car parked on the side of a mountain: Adam C Bartlett/Getty Images/Image Source © Provided by Travel + Leisure Adam C Bartlett/Getty Images/Image Source

Plus, you’ll have to consider more than just your route and destinations. For example, will you rent a car or an RV? Many road trippers are looking into recreational vehicles from companies like Outdoorsy, which offers RVs in a range of sizes and amenities, depending on your travel needs. Renting an RV also allows you to save on lodging and meals, as well as experience the camaraderie at RV parks and campgrounds. Then comes the question of how long you’ll drive each day, and how much time you’ll spend at each stop.

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To help you get started, we’ve compiled a list of seven amazing West Coast road trips, all departing from major cities. Gas up the car and go.

Road Trips From Seattle

a tree with a mountain in the background: Mount Rainier with road in view, Seattle, Washington © Provided by Travel + Leisure Mount Rainier with road in view, Seattle, Washington

Spend a few days in Seattle if it’s not your hometown and you’re visiting for the first time. Don’t miss the view from the Space Needle or the lively activity at the Pike Place Market. The Museum of Pop Culture is fun, and art fans will enjoy the Seattle Art Museum and Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum. Here are a few suggestions for road trips from Seattle.

Seattle to Astoria, Oregon 

Head south from Seattle toward Tacoma on Interstate 5, or take State Route 509 for a scenic, but longer drive. From Tacoma, drive southwest on Interstate 5 toward Olympia, the state capital. From there, drive west on State Route 8 to Aberdeen, get on U.S. Route 101 (Oregon Coast Highway), and head south toward Raymond. (If you have time to spare, and are anxious to see the ocean, take State Route 105 toward Markham for a drive around the peninsula.) From Raymond, head south on U.S. Route 101 until you reach the Columbia River and spectacular Astoria-Megler Bridge to the historic town of Astoria.

The scenic trip along the Oregon Coast Highway includes rugged coastline views, charming towns, state parks, beaches, tide pools, and marine life, like whales during their migration. Pass through (or stop at) Cannon Beach, Tillamook, Depoe Bay, Newport, or one of many picture-perfect overlooks. If you wish to continue further, the Oregon coast road trip from Astoria to the California border on U.S. Route 101 is about 340 miles.

Seattle to Vancouver, British Columbia (With an Optional Side Trip Through Whidbey Island)

Head north on Interstate 5 toward Everett, Washington, home of the Boeing manufacturing center. Continue on to Burlington, which is about halfway to Vancouver. Drive the tree-lined highway, passing Lake Samish and heading toward Bellingham, with views of Mount Baker to the east. Cross the border into Canada at Blaine, where you can see the Peace Arch, half in the U.S. and half in Canada. Then, continue north to Vancouver.

The scenic side trip, if your schedule allows, includes a ferry ride from Mukilteo to Whidbey Island and then a drive across the island, passing beaches and Deception Pass State Park and Fidalgo Island on State Route 20. Then, head east and meet up with Interstate 5 to continue on to Vancouver.

Road Trips From San Francisco

Golden Gate Bridge over a body of water: Getty Images © Provided by Travel + Leisure Getty Images

You’ll want to spend a few days in San Francisco to see the Golden Gate Bridge, snap a picture of the Painted Ladies Victorian mansions, and experience the city’s restaurants and attractions.

San Francisco to Seattle (Four-day Trip)

The road trip from San Francisco to Seattle is a long one, with two overnights on the way, so you may prefer to select just a segment, if your time is limited.

From San Francisco, drive north on Highway 1, passing through the Point Reyes National Seashore before reaching Bodega Bay. Continue on this route; it hugs the coast, so you’ll find plenty of places to stop for photo ops.

You’ll have driven nearly 200 miles upon arriving in Mendocino, so consider spending a night there or in nearby Fort Bragg. From Fort Bragg, continue north on Highway 1, and enjoy the ocean views and redwood forests. Highway 1 ends, turns inland, and becomes 101 (Redwood Highway). Continue north among the lush surroundings as you make your way back to the coast. Spend a night in Coos Bay or another one of Oregon’s seaside towns.

Stay on 101 for a spectacular trip up the Oregon coast. Spend a night in Cannon Beach or Astoria before the last leg of your road trip to Seattle. From that point, cross the Astoria-Megler Bridge into Washington and take 101 to Highway 12 east to Interstate 5. Finally, head north into Seattle.

San Francisco to Napa and Sonoma

This popular northern California road trip takes folks to Napa and Sonoma wine country, just about an hour away from the city. The beauty of the area, with rows of grapevines, tree-lined roads, and excellent dining, appeals to visitors, even those who don’t plan to partake in wine tasting and tours.

From San Francisco, two direct routes bring drivers to the city of Napa, the ideal starting point for exploring the valley towns and wineries. The slightly shorter route begins with Interstate 80, which turns north on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, a total of about 60 miles. Alternatively, head north on Highway 101 and then northeast on State Route 37 to arrive in Napa. From there, Highway 29 and the parallel Silverado Trail head north among wineries, pretty towns, and lush scenery to Calistoga at the northern end of the Napa Valley.

If you have time to combine visits to both Sonoma and Napa, drive northwest from Calistoga to Geyserville on State Route 128. From there, head south to Healdsburg and then Santa Rosa before driving west to the coastal towns of Jenner and Bodega Bay and returning to San Francisco on Highway 1.

For a direct trip from San Francisco to Sonoma, take 101 north, a trip of about 70 miles to Healdsburg.

San Francisco to Los Angeles (Two-day Trip)

This classic California road trip takes drivers south on Highway 1, along the coast. (Several inland freeways are shorter and faster, but less scenic.)

Join Highway 1 near the Presidio or Golden Gate Park and head south along the coast, passing beaches and small towns. You’ll arrive in Santa Cruz and then drive inland a bit until reaching the Monterey Peninsula. A side trip along the famed 17-mile Drive through forests and along the coast is well worth the time. Continue south and you’ll soon come to the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge on your way to spectacular Big Sur.

You’ll have driven nearly 230 miles, undoubtedly with many stops for taking in the breathtaking views, when Highway 1 (Cabrillo Highway) meets U.S. State Route 101 and swerves inland for a while around Morro Bay. Rest for the night in that town, San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach, or Pismo Beach, all excellent stops on the Highway 1 Discovery Route, a prime section of your California coast road trip.

With less than 200 miles to go, you can take your time, visiting wineries near San Luis Obispo, Edna Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley, and stopping in Santa Barbara. Continuing on the coast, you’ll reach Malibu, Santa Monica, and the South Bay area. In Los Angeles, you can stay near the beach, downtown, or in one of the many towns in the City of the Angels.

Road Trips From Los Angeles

a truck is parked in front of a sunset: Getty Images © Provided by Travel + Leisure Getty Images

Los Angeles to San Diego 

This drive takes about two to three hours, depending on traffic, but there are many great places to stop along the way, so the trip could last an entire leisurely day. The South Bay beach cities make for pleasant pit stops, perhaps for breakfast near the Strand, which stretches from Malibu to Torrance. Further south, Long Beach offers an aquarium, waterfront dining, and the Queen Mary.

From Long Beach, head south on Highway 1, passing the Huntington Beach Pier in Surf City, Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Dana Point, where Highway 1 changes to Interstate 5, still close to the coast. Crossing into San Diego County, you’ll pass the beachfront towns of Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinitas, Del Mar, and La Jolla, any of which would be perfect for a rest with views and ocean breezes.

In San Diego, visit the lively downtown area and Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park, Mission Bay, and SeaWorld, or just relax on a sunny beach.

West Coast National Parks Road Trip

The West Coast states of Washington, Oregon, and California are home to 11 national parks and hundreds of state parks, national monuments, historical reserves, and designated wilderness areas. Road trip through these sections to camp, explore, and experience the country’s natural beauty.

Planning a trip to one of more of these destinations is an exciting undertaking, and with so many variables to consider, including starting point, time available, traveler ages, interests, and budget, we’re going to leave the details up to you. However, one standout option is Redwood National Park's scenic Coastal Drive. The nine-mile journey begins in Klamath on U.S. 101 and continues to the Klamath Beach Road exit. The narrow road curves, offering views of the Pacific Ocean and Klamath River estuary. Even better, wildlife, like whales (in season), sea lions, and pelicans, may be spotted en route.

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